Five bodies found in Himachal river, 21 still missing



The bodies of five engineering students were retrieved Monday from the Beas river in Himachal Pradesh's Mandi district while a search is on for 21 others who were washed away. A court described it as "consequence of utter and callous negligence".

The toll in Sunday's accident could rise as chances of recovering any survivor is bleak, Himachal Additional Deputy Commissioner Pankaj Rai told IANS over phone.

Rai said one of the bodies was recovered from Pandoh dam, whose floodgates were closed after the accident. The dam is some 15 km downstream from the accident spot.

"The silent river literally turned into a watery grave within a fraction of seconds," Kiran, one of the survivors and a faculty member of the V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology in Hyderabad, told IANS in Mandi town.

Kiran said the students, who were on the way to picturesque tourist resort of Manali, were taking photogrraphs on the bank of the Beas river when the disaster occurred.

At least 24 students, including six girls, of the institute and one tour operator were reported missing.

More than 60 students and faculty members were on an excursion to Manali. Some of them were getting themselves photographed on the bank of the river in Thalaut area near Hanogi Mata temple when the sudden rush of water washed them away.

The river level suddenly increased due to release of water from the Larji hydropower project's dam without warning, eye witnesses said.

Anxious parents of engineering students missing in Himachal gathered at VNR college, near Hyderabad, even as the management promised to take them in a special flight.

Relatives of some students sat on protest at the college premises at Bachupalli on the outskirts of Hyderabad, alleging negligence in providing them information.

The parents entered into heated arguments with the college officials, demanding immediate action to fly them to Himachal Pradesh.

There was confusion on the number of bodies being recovered. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said in a statement that five bodies have been found, while state authorities said that four bodies were found.

The accident spot is located some 200 km from Himachal capital Shimla and on the border of Kullu and Mandi districts.

"The government will make necessary arrangements to take parents of the missing children to Himachal Pradesh. We will also arrange a flight to bring the bodies of the students," Information Technology Minister K. Tarakarama Rao said in Hyderabad.

The Himachal Pradesh High Court said it was not only a case of callousness but a grave negligence.

"It's a sad tale by reason of the fact that sheer fun of the young students turned out to be fatal as a consequence of utter and callous negligence of the power project authorities," Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan said, taking suo moto notice of the incident.

He directed the state government to file a status report on the incident by June 16.

He also directed the hydropower project authorities to take all remedial measures to avoid any mishap in future.

Ravi Kumar, a survivor while recounting the horror, said: "The water level suddenly rose to five or six feet and the students who were close to the river were washed away."

He said no help came from the district administration for hours.

"If the administration had reacted immediately, 10 to 15 lives could have been saved," an emotional Ravi Kumar said.

"Before going into the water, we asked the locals and they said you could go. When the disaster occurred, rather than helping us, they started shouting at us," he added.

Aditya, who was able to save himself, said darkness hampered search operations.

"There was no provision of searchlights. The search operation started almost 12 hours after the incident."

Himachal Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh told reporters in Shimla after visiting the spot: "The divisional commissioner of Mandi has been entrusted with the inquiry. We have already suspended three officials of the Larji hydropower project, including the resident engineer."

He said the staff at the Larji project claimed that they had sounded a hooter before releasing water. "The real picture will emerge only after the inquiry report," he added.

Virbhadra Singh said such an incident had occurred first time in the state.

Officials in Shimla that they are making arrangements to send back the remaining students to their native places.

In a report sent to the union home ministry over the incident, the state government explained that the water level in the rivers go higher in summers due to melting of glaciers. The report says that a hooter was blown at 6.15 p.m., before the floodgates were opened by the project staff.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu reviewed the situation.

He directed cabinet minister Narayana and IAS official Satish Chandra to go to Himachal to monitor rescue and relief work. - IANS